The Army Council: Sacred cow or Bargaining Chip?

The Army Council of the IRA appears to be at the pinnacle of that organisation. It has acquired a strange almost mythical status for all sides in Northern Ireland, whatever one’s views of it. Stripping away the mythology, however, the actual status and importance of the Army Council is difficult for outsiders to judge. It could be now irrelevant and a relic from the days of “armed struggle”. Alternatively it could still be the “Only legitimate Government of Ireland”; or, most likely, somewhere in between. As such when unionists demand the disbandment of the army council they may (and only may) actually be imbuing it with greater importance than it now has.It might be that disbanding the army council would make violence more difficult to return to. The end of the organisation which ordered the “volunteers” to halt their campaign might make it more difficult to order a return to violence. Some IRA members might genuinely see a difference between their political leaders when at Stormont and when sitting (with a few others) in someone’s house (or wherever they actually sit) to discuss the direction of the republican movement. It might be that some IRA members would feel that once the organisation had been disbanded the former army council members could not simply set themselves up again at a later date.

Personally I suspect this is relatively unlikely: It is pushing the whole idea of the IRA being an army to a level beyond that which it ever attained. The “volunteers” may have had some significant form of loyalty to the army council but I am unconvinced that all or even most of them endowed it with the almost mystical qualities and mythological status which it has now acquired. I strongly suspect that most “volunteers” justified their actions to themselves without recourse to some strange notion of the government of Ireland. Most probably justified it as “We hate Prods” possibly with a bit of pseudo politics thrown in. Hence, I suspect disbanding the army council would be a symbolic event but would not represent a once and for all act which could not be reversed: for those of a biblical bent I do not see this as a law of the Medes and Persians which cannot be revoked. Humpty Dumpty might be relatively easy to put back together again.

Moving a little away from republicans; if the army council was in some way dissolved I have no doubt the SF would expect significant concessions and the British government would attempt to insist on such from the DUP. If the DUP continue to demand the ending of the Army Council before the devolution of policing and justice; I have little doubt that SF will try to make this concession out to be more significant than it is. The DUP and indeed all unionists need to be careful. They feel they know that SF do not want to get rid of the army council but it is difficult to know how much pain that would involve for republicans. As such what should be accepted in return for an end to the army council is also difficult to judge. These are of course the problems which one encounters once on enters into quid pro quo negotiations. An additional problem is that the army council might go away or be suspended without the use of the wording demanded by the DUP. Finally of course it would also be difficult to tell how true any disbandment, indefinite suspension or renewable rolling suspension was.

I am not advocating that the DUP stop demanding an end to the army council. They must, however, be very careful that they are not strung along on the army council issue in the way Trimble was with decommissioning, the war being over or any of those other issues. SF were able to use decommissioning as an extremely effective bargaining chip with Trimble. The DUP need to be careful to ensure that SF do not use the army council in a similar fashion with them.

The army council should go because it is an illegal organisation both in the UK and RoI. Its members are, by dint of this membership, criminals. In addition the DUP must realise that the Army Council is not actually a group of military strategists. It is a group of grubby sectarian criminals and it disbanding itself will be as believable as any other group of criminals promising to go straight. It may be true but a wise man waits for some time before accepting the word of such people.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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